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Governor on Colonial Williamsburg: 'We've got to make sure it's viable'

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has weighed in on the financial troubles facing Colonial Williamsburg, saying all parties must find a way to maintain the viability of an important tourist attraction for Virginia. 

"I think we’ve all got to figure out a way," McAuliffe said Wednesday. "Let’s look at the expenses, see if we can bring them down. But we’ve got to make sure it’s viable."

Williamsburg city officials, along with county administrators from York and James City counties have received a request from foundation president Mitchell Reiss seeking tax relief for the next three years. 

In a letter dated June 27, Reiss asked that the two counties, as well as Williamsburg, exempt the foundation from paying real estate taxes and put in place a moratorium on any other taxes for the next three years.

“I recognize that this is a significant request, and I do not make it lightly,” Reiss wrote in his letter to the localities. “But I believe that this contribution by the County to our efforts is critical to our success.”

Reiss said in the letters that the foundation has not been complacent and has taken aggressive action to address the foundation's losses, which totaled $54 million in operations in 2016, and $277 million in the past five years, according to a fact sheet from Colonial Williamsburg. 

It also forwarded to the localities a document stating the amount of taxes paid in 2016 and 2017.

In 2016, the foundation paid $2,324,142.91 in total taxes to the city of Williamsburg and the counties of York and James City, according to a fact sheet on the schedule of taxes paid. The foundation paid Williamsburg, $2,140,152.82, York County $107,968.83 and James City County $76,021.26, according to the fact sheet. 

Through June 2017, the foundation has paid a total of $950,938.05 in taxes to the city of Williamsburg, and James City and York counties - $856,211.03 of that amount to the city of Williamsburg, $57,109.30 to York County and $37,617.72 to James City County, the fact sheet states. The amount paid to the city of Williamsburg includes a service charge of $108,046.01, according to the fact sheet.

The foundation estimates in the fact sheet that it will pay out $2,336,427.71 in taxes in 2017 - $2,146,973.67 to Williamsburg, $114,218.60 to York County and $75,235.44 to James City County.

McAuliffe said Colonial Williamsburg is a big reason why tourists come to Virginia.  

"Last year we did $26 billion worth of tourism income," McAuliffe said. "Colonial Williamsburg is a big part of that, so I think we all need to sit down and figure out a way to make it economically viable and continue to be the great tourist attraction it is."

Neil Morgan, county administrator in York County, said Monday that it would review the foundation's request for the 2018-2019 budget year, since the new fiscal year started July 1. 

"There's a category of entities that the state allows localities to either tax or not tax at their discretion," Morgan said. "And I'm assuming since they asked that, they're in one of those categories. But I don't really know that for a fact. That's part of what I've got to figure out."

Morgan said that would happen over the summer, and then report to the board of supervisors "maybe toward the end of summer ... and then sometime between now and the next budget season, we'll figure out whether it's anything we're inclined to consider."

Colonial Williamsburg owns 302 properties in Williamsburg with a value of more than $200 million, according to Williamsburg property records.

It owns 11 properties in James City County worth $8.3 million, according to James City County property records, with most of that property on Pocahontas Trail, according to county planning director Paul Holt.

"What I'm looking at, point blank, is as of a part of the Historic Triangle and the collaborative that we have here, as a regional entity, I'm looking at ways to help Colonial Williamsburg because it impacts James City County," said James City County administrator Bryan Hill. "What has been provided to me, I can't react to unless some (state) legislative action is taken. So that being said, I'm looking at other avenues to help Colonial Williamsburg with the interests of our partnership."

Hill said he had to ask the members of the James City County board of supervisors for direction on seeking state legislative action, and also provide it with several other options to potentially help the foundation. 

Colonial Williamsburg owns 25 properties in York County worth about $4.5 million. 

"We’ll have a dialogue with the foundation to let them know what we think we can do," Morgan said, "and then after conferring with the board of supervisors, whether we will in fact consider doing anything.”

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